A powerful coalition of equine welfare charities and countryside organisations has welcomed the move for Parliament to debate solutions to the illegal fly grazing of horses through a Private Members Bill which was launched in the House of Commons on 15 July.
The Bill was introduced by Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer, who has done a huge amount of work with local groups to help address this growing problem.
Welfare charities estimate that in England alone at least 3,000 horses are being illegally grazed on public and private land without the permission of the landowner.
The CLA, National Farmers’ Union and Countryside Alliance have joined forces with The British Horse Society, the RSPCA, World Horse Welfare, Redwings and Blue Cross to support the Bill after they supported similar legislation in Wales which became law in January.
The practice of illegal grazing, known as fly grazing, has proliferated since the economic downturn, causing welfare problems for horses, damage to crops and fencing, loss of use of land and risks to the public.
However, resolving these issues is normally a lengthy and costly process, due to the inadequacy of existing legislation to tackle the problem and the fact that the irresponsible owners of these horses do not comply with equine identification laws - meaning they are not held to account.
The Bill comes as welcome news at a time when a horse crisis is gripping the country and farmers and other landowners are struggling to remove horses placed on their land without permission.
For instance, the RSPCA alone has more than 800 horses in its care and receives about 500 complaints relating to horse welfare every week.
Similarly, World Horse Welfare rescued 76% more horses last year compared to 2012.
Lee Hackett, Director of Equine Policy at The British Horse Society, said: “For a very long time now, The British Horse Society has been working with our fellow charities to make Westminster aware of just how serious the horse crisis affecting Britain is.
“There are literally thousands of horses out there in desperate need of help and yet the existing legislation has not allowed us to assist as quickly and effectively as the horses desperately need us to.
“It is simply not fit for purpose. Additionally, the costs to landowners who are affected by fly grazing can be enormous and they are victims just like the horses.
“We are delighted that Julian Sturdy has introduced this Bill and we hope that Government will finally realise just how important it is to introduce new legislation to deal with a problem that should not be happening in 21st Century Britain.
“To fail to legislate and continue to allow horses to suffer unnecessarily is just not acceptable in a nation that prides itself as one of animal lovers.”
RSPCA head of public affairs, David Bowles, said: “We have been fighting for several years now for the Government to introduce legislation to help tackle the horse crisis.
“This Bill provides the Government with the opportunity to help local authorities, landowners and animal welfare organisations to tackle the fly grazing problem.
“It is now up to the Government to decide if they want to help enforcement of this problem or continue to bury their head in the sand.
“Horse owners need to be made accountable for their own animals and power needs to be given back to enforcers and land owners to tackle this problem.
“For too long, charities like the RSPCA have been left to pick up the pieces when horses are left without food, water and veterinary care and we just don’t have the resources to carry on doing this indefinitely so this is a step in the right direction.”
World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers said: “We hope that this Bill and our growing coalition will be a wake-up call to DEFRA that they cannot keep playing Pollyanna on the huge problem with fly grazing.
“The laws we have do not protect horses, taxpayers, local authorities, farmers or landowners. The only people they end up providing any protection to are the perpetrators.
“It is now time for effective laws with real teeth that impose significant consequences on irresponsible owners by allowing authorities to immediately seize the horses they leave on others’ land without permission.
“Not only will this enable quicker, cheaper resolution of these cases, it will serve as a strong deterrent and help to protect horse welfare.”
CLA President Henry Robinson said: “We have been raising this issue for some time and we are pleased to see the Bill introduced by Julian Sturdy.
“In recent years CLA Members, who own or manage approximately half the rural land in England and Wales, have reported serious problems with fly grazing.
“The horses are often dumped in large numbers and frequently have serious welfare problems. They are left in open spaces or fields which are not designed to contain them and they represent a clear risk to the public, and particularly motorists.
“Our Members face considerable obstacles in having these animals removed from their property, not least because the current legal process for seeking their removal is not fit for purpose.
“It is mired with uncertainty and, all too frequently, eye-watering costs.”
Redwings Chief Executive Lynn Cutress said: “We are delighted that Mr Sturdy is willing to take this forwards and we can only hope that the government sees fit to follow the example set by Wales and clamp down on the unacceptable practice of fly grazing at last.
“The charities cannot just continue picking up the pieces.”
Countryside Alliance Executive Chairman, Sir Barney White-Spunner, said: “There is widespread recognition of the seriousness of the problem of fly grazing for land managers and in terms of public safety and horse welfare. There is full agreement among stakeholders and across all parties that legislation is needed.
“The Government should take the opportunity presented by this Bill by giving it adequate parliamentary time so that a real step forward in horse welfare can be achieved before the General Election.
“It is time for the Government to listen and to take action.”
While the Bill is a positive step forward, it may not provide all answers to the equine crisis, the scale of which was highlighted in a report by six equine welfare charities (pdf).
Thousands of animals in Wales and England are still thought to be at risk with issues of traceability, identification, irresponsible ownership and tethering all needing continued action from government decision makers.